When done well, online learning can be highly successful—providing rich and rigorous instruction while opening the door to new learning opportunities that students might not have otherwise.
So, what are the elements that lead to high-quality online learning? They’re the same components that define high-quality learning in general. Here are seven characteristics to look for when evaluating an online learning program:
- Teacher training
As is true for both face-to-face and online instruction, teachers are the heart of any effective learning experience. Good teachers inspire wonder, give effective feedback, and connect with their students. But teaching in an online environment is different than teaching in a face-to-face classroom. In addition to being certified in the subject in which they teach, teachers should also be trained in effective online teaching practices—how to facilitate online discussions, build community, and make sure students are fully supported throughout their experience. Online learning isn’t really about the technology; the technology is merely the conduit for building relationships between teachers and students.
- Captivating curriculum
As in a traditional classroom, effective online learning features hands-on, authentic projects and rich discussions about the material with their peers. Assessments should include projects, labs, and other performance tasks with rubrics for measuring success, not just multiple-choice exams which can be easily graded by computer (though these do have their place). Students should have opportunities to reflect, revise their work, and grow, not simply turn in an assignment and move on.
One of the challenges involved in taking classes online is the sense of isolation that students might feel when they’re not sitting in a traditional classroom physically surrounded by their peers. Effective online learning establishes a strong sense of community by having students frequently interact with one another and their teacher in their coursework. Teachers should assign “icebreaker” activities in the beginning to help students get to know each other and feel comfortable interacting online. All students should have a voice and be active participants in their online classroom so they can feel connected with each other and their teacher.
An important benefit of learning online is the degree of flexibility and personalization it allows. Yet, students still need structure to ensure they are able to finish their coursework successfully and on time. A self-paced course (without established deadlines) might work well for high achievers who are self-motivated, but many students—and especially those taking their first online course—will end up lost if they don’t have a clear structure to guide them.
A high-quality online learning experience strikes the right balance between flexibility and structure. For instance, within the established timeframes, students should be free to complete assignments when it’s convenient for them to do so.
- Student-to-teacher ratio
Many for-profit online learning providers rely on technology to automate much of their instruction, with the teacher playing a minimal role. This allows providers to keep their costs low in order to maximize profits through high student-to-teacher ratios. In the end, students pay the price when they don’t have a lot of personal interaction with an instructor. As they do in a traditional classroom, students learn best with smaller class sizes, where teachers can provide support and personalized feedback to every student.
- Frequent feedback
Research from John Hattie and other academics confirms what educators already know to be true: The more feedback students receive about their work, the more effectively they learn. Just like in a brick-and-mortar classroom, high-quality online instruction must include substantive feedback that guides their learning and offers room for improvement.
- Support (for both students and teachers)
Students need to be supported throughout their educational journey, and especially in an online environment. An effective online learning experience should include some kind of orientation for students so they know how to complete their work in this new format and how they can ask for help. Teachers should check in with each student at least several times per week (sometimes more frequently) to make sure they don’t feel lost in the class. Knowing that there is a “real” teacher at the other side of the relationship can be motivating and will also build the classroom community. If the online instructor is not a staff member (for example the school employs an online program with instructors), there should also be a qualified online program coordinator on staff—a librarian, a teacher, or a paraprofessional—who can provide direct support and serve as a liaison between the student and online instructor if needed.
It’s not only the students who need support. For an online learning program to be effective, school leaders and program coordinators may need help as they implement the program and training to support their students. If the school's own teachers are running online classes, those teachers will also need training in online teaching methods.
The keys to effective online learning aren’t a secret. They’re the same elements that lead to high-quality learning overall. At VHS Learning, we’ve integrated these elements into our online courses for more than two decades, with remarkable success. Our experience proves that when implemented well, online learning can indeed be very effective.
This article was based on “7 keys to effective online learning,” originally published in eSchool News by Carol DeFuria.